A while back the Arizona Game and Fish Department conducted a survey of the state’s licensed anglers. The results not too surprisingly revealed more than half of these fishermen lean toward the two "glamour" species. The various trout comprised the preferred quarry of 36 percent, while 25 percent favored the largemouth bass. Only 5 percent of the respondents chose the channel catfish, and the 5 percent of "all other fish" included those with a fondness for the flathead cats.
These is unfortunate because whiskerfish inhabit nearly every warmwater lake in the state, Plus, the limits are generous and the flesh makes some of the best table fare available from the finny creatures swimming in Arizona’s waters. Despite all this, the catfish still garners little respect -- the Rodney Dangerfield of the fishing world, so to speak.
But don’t tell that to Jim Grimes and his friends. Each spring they travel north from their homes to Roosevelt Lake to battle with Rodney.
Grimes, who lives in Oracle near the base of Mt. Lemmon, gets worked up just talking about it. “I can’t wait for May to arrive each year. I know without a doubt that I’m going to hook into dozens of big catfish and have enough fillets in my freezer to last until the next year. And the greatest thing about it is the excitement. For anyone who has never battled 40 or 50-pound fish, it can be the thrill of their lives. Heck, I have been doing it for years, and it’s still a super experience for me.”
The shallow flats at the east end of the 26-mile-long reservoir is a good place to catch a mess of channel cats, but the Salt River arm to the west is the place to be for flatheads at this time of year when the annual spawn takes place. Grimes and his partners avoid the lake, however, an prefer fishing in the river just below the diversion dam.
“Generally by early May, the flatheads have started moving up the and into the river in good numbers. It takes at least 1,000 to 1,400 fps. to keep them there. So if there was a lot of snow in the high country over the winter, we can usually count on them being there well into June.”
Three catfish species and two varieties of bullhead prowl the lakes in the Grand Canyon State. Because the bullheads never grow very large, no one actually targets them. That^s not true, however, with the two most prevalent and popular species -- the flathead and channel cat. In fact, several rank as the state^s biggest catches, including a couple state records.
The 71-pound, 52-inch-long inland-record flathead caught by Clayton Randall of Pine at Roosevelt Lake in May, 1998 ranks as the second largest fish every recorded in Arizona.
And the largest one?
Yup, that’s right; another flathead that ranks as the Colorado River record. Also caught in May, 1998 – a day after Randall landed his -- this monster tipped the scales at 74 ponds but was actually a half-inch shorter than Randall’s behemoth.
The records for channel cats aren^t quite as big but impressive nonetheless. The inland record, caught by Sierra Vista^s Chuck Berndt at Parker Canyon Lake, weighed 32-lb. 4-oz. Wando Tull^s Colorado River record from Topock Marsh was 35-lb., 4-oz.
Of course, these are only the listed records. They do not include hundreds of big cats caught throughout the year that no one ever hears about. Perhaps that^s why devoted catfishermen often wonder about the 61 percent of the anglers in the state who favor the tiny trout and bass.
Grimes is one of them. “Over the last 3-4 years, I have released at least 75 to 100 flatheads that weighed more than 30 pounds. On one day last spring along, my fishing partner, Cledis Taylor, and I let 8 fish over 25 pounds swim another day. And this wasn’t even the best day we’ve had.
“Duwane Adams, who lives in San Manuel not too far from me, Cledis, another friend and I had one super day where we caught more than 60 fish, and 32 of them topped 25 pounds. Of those, 5 weighed over 40 and the biggest was 55 pounds, which was also the largest we caught in 1998.
Channel catfish are scavengers and often use their keen sense of smell to find tasty morsels on the bottom. So the fishermen who target them use the traditional offerings -- odorous baits such as chicken entrails, liver, shrimp, dead anchovies and commercially prepared, blood-type baits.
The flatheads are a different breed, however, preferring live food to the stinky stuff. And the big ones require lots of food to fill their bellies. If they had to depend on just scavenging tidbits from the bottom, they would eventually starve. Thus, they are efficient predators and regularly feed on live fish. In fact, artificial lures often entice them. For the fisherman on the other end of the line, it can be an unexpected surprise, especially when the catch weighs well over 20 pounds.
Tucson angler Joe Agers and guide Ted Miller of Superior headed to Roosevelt Lake a few years ago to get in on the hot crappie bite. They located a school of the palatable panfish in the Haystack area of the reservoir not too far from where the Salt River dumps into the lake. They started throwing white crappie jigs with light spinning rods and reels spooled with 4-lb.-test-line, and the pair caught a few crappie over the first few hours all right. Then the real excitement started.
About 9 a.m., Miller felt a bump and set the hook. As the line rapidly peeled off the reel, he thought he had hooked either the largest crappie in the world or a hefty largemouth. The battle between man and fish went back and forth. Almost an hour later, Miller brought the fish alongside the boat and saw it was a huge flathead, one way too large for the small net the duo had. He grabbed the fish with his hands and hoisted it into the boat.
A short time later, Agers hooked into a fish that also behaved like a runaway train. It was another monster flathead -- a near twin to Miller^s. The two fishermen headed for the certified scale at the marina. Both fish weighed 39.5 pounds.
Grimes takes full advantage of the flathead’s predatory instincts, too. “We use nothing but live bait in the river. Must often our choice is a big, fat waterdog because we can just buy them at the local tackle stores and not have to catch our own bait. But if the shad are running in the river, we’ll often seine them. Another good bait is a big bluegill. If we plan on using them, we’ll drive down to the lake first, catch a few dozen and then head back to the river to fish.”
When it comes to waterdogs, Grimes claims the bigger the better. “I’m one of those firm believers in the adage, ‘If you want to catch big fish, use big bait.’ And using a large waterdog or bluegill also seems to keep smaller fish away. We always seem to catch bigger fish on average when we use the bigger baits. Depending on what kind of year it’s been for the waterdog hatch in the West, we can usually count on finding some in the 8- to 10-inch range. But more likely, most of them will be six to eight inches long.”
The tackle and fishing methods Grimes and his friends use are quite unlike those employed by most catfishermen. They use long rods, level-wind reels and 20-pound line.
Grimes claims the long rod is one of the keys for a successful day. “My rod is fairly stiff and 9-feet long, more like a surf-casting rod. It lets me do a couple things a shorter rod wouldn’t. I can make nice long casts, but best of all, I have much better control of the line.”
“When we fish the river, we generally wade, often getting waist-deep. The whole idea is to cast the bait up and across the flow, then to let it drift back down as naturally as possible. But if the water is flowing fast, it tends to grab the line and makes it drift too fast. With the long rod, I can lift the tip high, therefore getting more line out of the water for a more natural drift. This technique also helps me guide the bait around obstacles such as rocks that are sticking up out of the water. And lastly, the longer, stiffer rod is super for quickly wearing down those bigger fish.”
The terminal tackle Grimes has settled on has resulted from many experiments, including lots of fish to broken lines.
“It taken me a few years, but I finally came up with a good combination of hook, line and sinker. My hook choice is a 6-0 sold by Eagle Claw. It comes with a foot-long wire leader already attached, and this is probably the most important element for keeping a fish attached to your line.”
“When I first stared fishing the Salt, I had lots of big fish break off, and in almost every case, I could tell the line had become frayed. The break normally occurred right above the hook -- the spot where the line went into the fish’s mouth and over its teeth. When you fight a big catfish on 20-pound test for an hour in fast water, there’s no way regular line can withstand that sort of abrasion. And by using the pre-snelled hooks, I avoid just one more knot that might come unglued.”
For weight, Grime favors split shot rather than a sliding or other type of sinker. “Like the hooks, the sinker is something I decided on after trying several types. The split shot has several advantages over the others. First, I can change them quickly without cutting and tying my line too often. Also, if I get hung up in the rocks, the split shot will often come off the line with a little bit of tugging while other types of sinkers might not. So I don’t have to lose everything by breaking my line.”
The amount of weight he uses varies with the river’s flow. “On some days when a lot of water is coming down the river, I might put on an ounce or more, but generally I use a half-ounce or less. The whole idea is to keep the bait AND the sinker just off the bottom. About the only way to gauge the necessary weight is to start out with one weight and see what happens. If you can feel the weight consistently bouncing on the bottom, it’s too heavy, and if the line – and thus the bait – stays close to the surface during a drift, it’s obviously too light. Normally, it takes only about three or four drifts. But you also have to consider the part of the river where you’re fishing, and in some cases that can vary from cast to cast.”
“I like to survey the river and fish it much like a trout fisherman would. I try to divide it in areas and then cover all of them systematically. I might start by casting clear across the river close to the opposite shoreline. Naturally, the water depth there will be less than it is in the middle of the river. So I use a lighter shot and make a dozen or so drifts in the same general area. Then I shorten my casts, thus getting the bait to farther out from the shore. But once I get into the middle part of the river, I might have to switch to a heavier weight so the bait gets deep enough. By using this method, I manage to cover the whole river before I move up or downstream.”
Grimes finds most of his big flatheads like to sit in the calmer water of the larger pools where the fast-flowing water feeds into them. “I guess the real large cats are a bit lazy. Instead of chasing after their next meal they kind of sit in one place and wait for it to swim by, and that’s probably why the methods we use work so well.”
“From the place where the road intersects with the river, it’s at least three to four miles up to the diversion dam. So there are lots of good fishing spots. Just look for those quieter, deeper holes. And if you do, you’ll me see me there, too. I can’t wait.”
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
If you prefer fishing from a boat in the lake proper, take Highway 88 from Globe. It^s about 36 miles to the marina. This is the best route to get to the Salt River arm. Take Highway 87 (Payson Highway), cut off onto Highway 188 at Tonto Basin, and drive through Punkin Center to the fish the Horse Pasture area on the Tonto arm.
To get to the Salt River, also take Highway 88, but rather than proceeding to the lake, turn north on Highway 288 toward Young, After crossing the bridge over the Salt, keep going until you pass the little store and gas station on your left, then start watching for a dirt road that turns to the left. This is the one to take. If you see a maintained dirt road (Forest Service Road #203) on your right that points to Cherry Creek, you went about a half-mile too far. Turn around. The road to the river is not maintained, so it’s a bit rough but quite passable for most high-clearance vehicles. Fortunately, it’s only a couple miles to the river.
There is also another road farther north that also goes to the river and upper part of the lake. It turns off 288 both left and right. On the right, it FS 1494 and maintained. But you want to take the turn to left.
Resident fishing licenses cost $12 for one year. $8 for one day. Nonresidents have a choice of $38 for a year, $27.50 for nine days or $18.50 for five days. Both residents or nonresidents pay $8 for a one-day license. The daily limit for all catfish species is 25 in aggregate. Those under 14 who do not have license may keep only half the limit. For information, contact: Arizona Game and Fish Department, 2222 W. Greenway Road, Phoenix, AZ, 85023, (602) 942-3000.